Sunday, October 23, 2011

Practical Challenges in Meditation

Bear in mind that the process being undertaken is gradual, so concentration will improve with practice. That’s why it’s called bhâvanâ or cultivation, development. We don’t need to be perfect on the first day, and we will need patience and determination to sustain our efforts when our mind wanders. Simple acknowledgement and returning to a focus on the breath is all that is needed.

It’s not a question of rejecting or fighting against our “monkey mind”, or of blocking thoughts or trying to blank them out. Samatha meditation is more about accepting what is in our mind and gently determining to return to the object of meditation, rather than getting upset or frustrated.

The good news is that the moments of pure concentration and one-pointedness will become longer and more frequent with practice, and the distractions will become less prominent and less frequent.

Avoid attaching too much significance to the thoughts and images that arise, or trying to analyse and investigate them. Images of people, places and colours are not unusual, and can arise for many reasons. However, they have no intrinsic essence – being transient and uncontrollable – and may simply be our mind’s way of trying to find something more interesting for us to consider. Since our concentration cannot stay fully on two different objects, we need to return to the breath.

If particular urges arise, you can review the best time to practice. If these become disturbing, consider reading some Buddhist texts or some simple rituals, like short chants or pujas, before beginning the following sessions.

Tiredness can be an issue, so it is best not to meditate straight after a meal. It is also possible to practise with the eyelids slightly open if one is very tired. Having good ventilation, an upright posture and adequate sleep are better than forcing alertness artificially, such as with coffee.

Finally, it is important to remain determined to practise regularly and with dedication over an extended period. In this way we will develop the skills of concentration and awareness that we need to build our meditation practice further. While it is simple to find reasons to put off the next session, like longing for the perfect conditions to meditate, we need to develop the habit of daily meditation to make the work more fruitful.

Anapanasati 3

Mediation in chair
The samatha techniques provide us with training in concentration and single-pointedness, so they will also bring some tranquillity. While ultimately it leads beyond suffering and fear, in the short term it helps us face life’s immediate problems more gently.

All of these techniques are based in reality, rather than using visualisations, religious ideas or other special attributes. In this way we will learn to face reality without fear and use our experiences to open ourselves to insight.

Since meditation requires all of our attention and energy, it is not a time for deep thinking. We should recognise the importance of making our sittings successful, while leaving disccusions of issues and other thoughts to times outside of meditation. Please remember that these sessions are very important and our time on the cushion should be used efficiently. In this way, we will have more that is useful to offer society.

Meditation Postures

One should ease into meditation by adjusting the posture using cushions and padded mats as necessary, rather than suffering insurmountable pain. We are interested in developing awareness and concentration, not a particular physical pose.

While the Buddha mentions four postures (sitting, standing, walking and lying down) it is the first that is the simplest to maintain for beginners. This sitting can be done on a chair or with the back against a wall, especially if this allows keeping a steady posture for longer sessions.

If you are flexible enough, the traditional seated postures (such as crossing the legs or kneeling) are definitely beneficial since they provide a stable triangular base.  Flexibility can be built up over time through stretching exercises, yoga, and short periods in a traditional posture outside of a session.

If discomfort arises, treat it like other thoughts by noticing it, recognising that it is not your focus, and returning to the meditation focus. However, if it persists or becomes painful, rather than fidgeting, choose with awareness to move into another posture.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Anapanasati Part 2

Our only concern here is to be mindful of the breath being inhaled and exhaled, always aiming for one-pointedness. We are not concerned with whether the breath is long or short, shallow or deep, but only with observing the movement involved.

In the first two sections, we don’t mentally say “breathe in, breathe out”, but we do observe it happening. The only mental note is of the counting. We also don’t try altering the depth or rhythm of the breath, but allow it to be natural. 

While the breathing is the same, in the second section we re-order the way we choose to observe the sequence of breaths. 

By the time we reach the third section, we should be able to keep our focus maintained for longer without the aid of counting. 

If breathing is through the mouth rather than the nose, then the focus for the fourth section (where the breath first touches) will probably be somewhere on the lip.

During all four sections, rather than building a mental commentary try just observing what is happening. If thoughts, sensations or images come up, acknowledge them, then allow them gently to leave, and return to the observations.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Introduction to Anapanasati

On its face, the simplest of things - follow the flow of the breath as it enters and leaves the body - is actually very challenging. Our fast-paced lives are usually characterised by short periods of partial attention then moving onto the next thing – much of it unfocussed. We really struggle to do more.

Try an experiment – set an alarm and spend 10 minutes giving your whole attention to only your breathing. Did you have any problems, intruding thoughts, bodily sensations, or emotions? The point is that we cannot really know something until we give it our complete attention.

There is nothing magical in choosing the breath, as there are many other possibilities. It’s simply that it is always available in any place, and it has no particular religious connotation. While it seems a simple process, breathing is actually very complex. Our job is to watch the normal breath as it naturally comes and goes for a set period of time. Any counting or other aid we use is only a tool to help us focus more strongly on the breath.

Choose a time which you can stick to each day. Find a quiet place where you will not be distracted. Until you get a sense for the length of each session, either set an alarm or have a clock in view. Sit comfortably with your back straight and hands in your lap so that you can maintain your position, remain alert and keep your air passages unobstructed for 20 to 30 minutes without stress. You can use a traditional posture, kneel or sit in a chair. At first, relax your face and muscles, gently close your eyes and stop thinking about your day.

In the first section, focus on your natural, gentle breathing and counting mentally after each breath, up to 10, and then starting over. If thoughts or distractions come up, let them gently subside without getting irritated and return to the breath, counting again from one.

In the second section, (another quarter of the full session) continue focussing on the breath, but mentally count before each inhalation up to 10, and then starting over.

In the third section, stop counting and simply observe the breath as it moves in a regular, unforced way into and out of the body. After three-quarters of the session has been completed, move onto the final section.

In the final section, focus precisely on the point the breath touches as it first enters the body. It will usually be the tip of the nostrils if we breathe through the nose, and it will remain constant. We notice the sensations here, not worrying about following the breath further into the body. Patiently and gently return to the breath when you become distracted, simply letting the thought go. Keep the face and eyes relaxed throughout.

At the end of the session, open the eyes gently and remain seated for a few moments. Try to keep some of the calm and concentration throughout the rest of the day. If you miss a session, just begin again at the next available time and avoid feeling guilty about it. You should take time to progress, understanding that developing calmness and concentration will require consistent effort.

Two Strands in Meditation Practice

By concentrating on a single object, samatha meditation aims at developing calmness, serenity and tranquillity. Other forms, usually called vipassanâ meditation, aim at gaining insight into the nature of existence. All of these developments result from a balanced meditation practice, since tranquil concentration is indispensable to the penetrative understanding of “the impermanency, unsatisfactoriness and impersonality of all material and mental phenomena of existence” (by Ven. Nyanatiloka).

The mental states (jhânas) which arise from samatha meditation offer a joyful path to the meditator. The initial technique will involve mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati) which builds greater calm and serenity. Then we move to cultivating the brahmaviharas (sublime abiding) of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity using a series of inter-related techniques which are also part of the samatha grouping.

Seen as uniquely Buddhist, vipassanâ gives one the ability, through one’s own efforts, to see that all things are impermanent (anicca), basically unsatisfactory (dukkha) and not-Self (anatta). This insight means we no longer need to rely on others or scriptures, but know for ourselves. Two techniques will be explored. The first is clearly seeing the arising and ceasing of feelings through bodily observation, and the other is bringing the same clarity and mindfulness to all phenomena of which we become aware.

The Pali Canon notes “when one practices samatha followed by vipassanâ, the path arises”. This means that it is valuable to work with both approaches, as the Buddha’s own example shows.

Finally, one should not let meditation work end on the cushion. The benefits of the practice should flow into our lives and relationships. Our actions will become more informed by kindness, respect and compassion, and our daily activities will become more balanced and appropriate to the reality of our situation.